Settler Kaponga 1881–1914 — A Frontier Fragment of the Western World
The ascent of the mountain is all the rage here, as indeed it seems to be on your side. There are now some half dozen routes; each one has supporters, who claim that their route is the shortest, the easiest, and the most picturesque…. ‘Meet me on the Mountain’ will soon be a matter of course when the business men of the several townships surrounding it want to meet to do a little business.
Egmont continued to fascinate the Kaponga settlers, and though theirs was the newest and rawest of the settlements below its ramparts they played a major part in moves to extend Manaia Road up through the bush to Dawson Falls and to provide an accommodation house and horse paddock there. These ambitious plans owed much to the initiatives of Felix McGuire, who claimed that ‘as early as 1887 I brought the subject before the people on the public platform at Hawera, Manaia, Kaponga and Stratford, and many other centres within the provincial district’.18 By persistent lobbying he persuaded the government to divide the reserve into north, east and south parts and to appoint conservators for each.19
Frederick William Wilkie. His appointment as a conservator while still only in his late twenties was fitting recognition of a man who was arguably the most versatile and progressive leader in early Kaponga
With Kaponga providing the core of the South Egmont forest conservators many of their meetings were held in the township. Kaponga was to the fore in raising the funds and providing the voluntary labour that turned the primitive track to Dawson Falls into a road for wheeled traffic and had the Dawson Falls Hostel ready for its official opening on 28 January 1896, only four years after the old New Plymouth settlement's first accommodation house on their side of the mountain, and three years ahead of the third house, that on the Stratford side. We will survey how this was achieved.
The newly appointed southern conservators got quickly onto their task, with calls for parties of voluntary labour armed with slashers or axes, and arrangements for tents to accommodate them. Somehow a dozen or two page 111 settlers found time in the 1894 harvest season to put a day or two's work into ‘Dawson's Track’. The Star (24/2/94) had a report from a member of a large climbing party that used the newly cut track in mid-February to get by horse to Dawson Falls, camp there the night and scale the mountain next day. When they got back their horses had disappeared, underlining the need for a horse paddock. In March ‘Our Own’ (21/3/94) reported tourists passing through daily on their way to the mountain, and remarked that it was a grievous pity that more visitors did not follow Hawera settler Moore Hunter's example and leave contributions towards development costs with the conservators' chairman, Frank Canning. With the approach of the following summer Manaia's ‘Our Own’ (23/10/94) took it upon himself to prod the conservators into even more vigorous activity, based on the tapping of this and all other available sources of finance:
Last year over a thousand climbers, principally from our own districts, made their way up as far as the Falls, and many of them visited the top. Not a few camped under canvas and some under the blue vault of heaven … Our conservators should, a couple of months ago, have started a practical scheme for meeting the wants of the ever-increasing stream of mountaineers, and have taken advantage of the very first chance for getting materials ready for the proposed accommodation house, which should be ready for occupation by the middle of December … Had some degree of importunity been shown, a vote might have been obtained from Parliament … The track wants improving, especially above the Falls, more bush land should be felled and the land now in grass should be fenced … Manaia road should be improved at once in view of the increased traffic … It may well be said, ‘Where is the money to come from for all these works?’ … the answer should not be difficult. If half a dozen gentlemen possessed of some little enthusiasm were selected to canvass for subscriptions £200 could be collected between Opunake on the one side and Stratford on the other without trenching upon the domains of other boards. That's a large sum! Yes, but there is hardly a man or woman who can't be interested in the scheme of popularising our mountain scenery … Supposing that every one of the thousand climbers last year had given a shilling, there's £50.
This correspondent showed a good knowledge of the needs, and his programme for raising and spending money was very near to what happened, if not at the breakneck speed he desired. Felix McGuire, though, was already ahead even of this enthusiast. Returning from Wellington a few days later he informed this gentleman, through the Star (29/10/94), that he had succeeded in getting £100 on the estimates for the South Egmont Forest Road.
Only a few days later the Star (12/11/94) reported that the accommodation house was to be built of iron, 40ft by 20ft, with three compartments: a middle one for cooking and dining and the two end ones as bunkrooms with accommodation for 42 people. The conservators met at page 112 Dawson Falls to select a site for the house and paddock. They also decided to ask the Stratford County Council to upgrade its section of the Manaia Road and empowered their ranger to employ labour and to impound all cattle found in the reserve. By their next meeting in January they had a volunteer prepared to design the accommodation house free of charge. They resolved to call tenders immediately, closing at Kaponga on 8 February, and also to renew their application to the Stratford County Council, which had declined their request about Manaia Road.
Meeting monthly for the next few months they had by the end of the season raised the road to the falls to dray standard so that building materials could be carted in. When the tardy government grant left workmen out of pocket Canning advanced the money to pay them. Hearing of feeling in Hawera that the board was a Manaia concern they arranged for Hawera lawyer Elliott Barton to join them.20 Over the winter they canvassed for funds and when insufficient had come in by spring they organised shilling concerts at five venues across south Taranaki.21 Meeting in Kaponga on 22 November 1895 they received the good news that the horse paddock fence had been completed and that builders Messrs Elliott and King of Stratford would erect their ‘Mountain House’ without charge provided they sent one man themselves. They drew up rules for managing the house and horse paddock. Their day of fulfilment, the official opening in January 1896, left them with a £50 debt to wrestle with. They began this task with a falls concert and a dance of about 70 couples at Kaponga that evening.22
The conservators continued improving the facilities of the reserve and its supervision. On each road leading to the mountain settlers were appointed as rangers. Action was taken on trespassing cattle.23 C.E. Lloyd was appointed first caretaker of the Mountain House in January 1897, his remuneration being two-thirds of fees collected.24 Free Christchurch, New Plymouth and local newspapers were supplied to the house. With continuing government grants, local fundraising and voluntary labour the conservators improved the building, its access and surroundings. Extensions opened on New Year's Day 1898 increased the facilities to eight rooms. Chairman Richard Dingle used the occasion to solicit help with further improvements. He wanted the building lined for winter use, particularly for local dairy farmers not free to come up in summer. He also launched a ‘thousand shillings’ appeal to buy a piano.25
A good idea of the resort's resources and its growing popularity is provided by a Star report of 22 March 1898. W.D. Powdrell of Patea told of travelling there on 23 February with a party of 39, including visitors from Dunedin, Timaru, Christchurch, Napier and Bulls. They had a pleasant social overnight stop in Manaia, and next morning stocked up with fresh meat, bread and butter in Kaponga. At the edge of the reserve they bought fresh milk and left their vehicles and half of their horses in a paddock. Those who rode up carried most of the swags. Powdrell told of Dawson's pioneer work in opening up the mountain and of Richard Dingle's vigorous current page 113 leadership. He thoroughly approved of Dingle's piano appeal, commenting that
… We missed music more than anything as the dining room and verandah are suitable for dancing and most of our party could play, sing and dance; we tried hard to get a musician from Kaponga with his accordion but failed. After we had paddocked our horses and had lunch we had a look at snowclad Egmont with the glasses … we could distinctly see tourists on the descent.
The house consists of eight rooms and an expansive verandah. Two rooms are match-lined throughout, others large and well fitted up. The bunks are put up ship fashion…. An ample supply of crockery and cooking utensils are provided by the Board. The house boasts of two fire places; the one in the dining room is very large—just the thing for a big party. One night 55 slept in the house. Skittles are also provided … and had a good deal of use from our party … The house is looked after by Mr C.E. Lloyd, who also acts as guide…. He also keeps stores, consisting of tinned meats, fruits, milk, tea, sugar, tobacco, &c., at about town prices. Horse feed can be obtained at 1s a feed, and a good feed too. We were charged 8d per day for the use of house, crockery, cooking utensils, &c. The track to the house is well cut and looked after, and not too steep a grade for riding. I am told two buggies have been up and down with safety. A spring cart and two horses had preceded us, taking up grass seed, parcels of books, £5 worth of crockery given by the Manaia public.
… Next day we were astir at 4.30 and got well away from the house at 5.30. Thirty-five started determined to reach the summit … that is not including our good guide … We took provisions with us … Twenty-seven of the party reached the top … of which 12 were ladies….
From this height we had a magnificent view for miles around. Mt. Ruapehu, Tongariro, Kaponga village, Stratford, New Plymouth, and many different homesteads could be plainly seen, although the smoke prevented us seeing many places of interest. After we had lunched and carved names on our alpine sticks we started our downward journey…. The main body reached the house at 3 p.m…. We were all very tired…. The following day a journey was made to Kendell's cascade. This is at the head of the Kapuni, and very pretty it is. The scenery up this river is hard to equal anywhere in New Zealand …
There will be good paddocks next season, as the board have fallen 10 acres more this season…. The water is within 20 yds of the house, and a good bathing place on both sides—one for ladies, the other for gents—are within reasonable distance, about 40 yds….
Sunday about 7 a.m., a party of eight came to the house and started for the mountain. At 7.30 another dozen more arrived determined for a climb; 11 a.m. the chairman of the board came along, and all morning they came.
At 11 o'clock we started to pack our swags ready for home, and when page 114 accounts were made up, we found provisions had only cost 1s 5d per day … only a quarter what the hotels charged us. At 11.30 a start was made. Going down the track, two more parties, bound for the house were met.
Powdrell concluded that the conservators ‘appear to understand their work thoroughly’. Their success had added a vibrant note to the social and economic life of the nearby settlements, especially Kaponga and Manaia.